NAPLES – Roger Lowell learned that his job was in jeopardy in early March, when the Maine Department of Education named Lake Region High School one of the 10 persistently lowest-performing schools in the state.

The shocking label meant that the high school was eligible to share $12 million in federal education reform funding. To get a grant, the Lake Region School District had to adopt a three-year school improvement plan and replace Lowell, its principal for 16 years.

Within a few weeks, an appointed community group came up with a long list of problems at the high school: SAT scores below the state average, with boys trailing girls in reading and writing. High student apathy. Low parent involvement. Inadequate teacher evaluations. A “culture of mediocrity” across the district.

The morning before the school board voted 9-3 to accept the federal money, Lowell announced that he would retire in June. Many in the district praised him for stepping out of the way and putting an end to the turmoil that had gripped the community, in part because Lowell is respected and well-liked.

Lowell hadn’t planned to retire just yet, and he never imagined that his 40-year career in education would end on such a sour note.

“This whole thing has been a real kick in the face,” said Lowell, 61, sitting in his office at the high school on Route 302, a massive U.S. flag hanging on the wall behind him.

Lowell speaks for many — students, teachers and others — when he describes the unexpected and, for some, painful upheaval that the rural towns of Bridgton, Naples, Sebago and Casco went through after Lake Region High made “the list.”

What followed was a rapid and divisive review of school programs — a process that happened in several communities on the first-time list, especially the seven that decided to accept the federal money.

At Lake Region, some people found the review overwhelmingly negative, Lowell said, particularly in light of a recent accreditation report by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges that was largely positive. The review did take into account several positive trends, including fewer students dropping out and more going on to college.

Several students said they were shocked and embarrassed to learn that their SAT scores, which Maine uses to gauge juniors’ academic progress under federal criteria, put Lake Region High on the list.

“We had no idea that our scores would have anything to do with this list,” said Abby Hancock, a senior who plans to attend Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

Students questioned whether the SAT is an effective measure of the high school’s success. They said some of their peers who aren’t planning to go to college don’t take the SAT seriously, especially because they have to take it on a Saturday.

Even students who are going to college don’t always try their best on the school-sponsored SAT because they view it as a practice run and plan to take it again. Unfortunately, higher scores on follow-up tests don’t count when the state figures the lowest 10 schools.

Some faculty members weren’t happy with the high school status report that was issued last month by the 15-member community group, which included three teachers. In a written response, faculty members said the group’s interpretation and presentation of statistics on student performance were biased, confusing and sometimes inaccurate.

“Some people are feeling bruised and misused by the process,” said Patrick Phillips, superintendent of SAD 61 since 2007. “Ultimately, the school board took a bold step and decided that it’s not OK for some kids to go through their education and not meet minimum standards of proficiency.”

Last week, SAD 61 applied for $1.7 million to implement a school-improvement plan at Lake Region High. District officials said it was more money than they were willing to turn down, especially in the current budget-cutting climate.

They plan to use the money to increase student support, staff development and community outreach, as well as improve teacher evaluations, curriculum development and classroom instruction at the 660-student school.

“Once the shock and awe of being on the list subsided, I thought it was a great opportunity to turn the school into something that will meet the needs of our students in the 21st century,” said Jeff Hall, a member of the community group that reviewed the high school. He’s a former school board member and has three children in Lake Region schools.

“We had been stuck in mediocrity for a while,” Hall continued. “We needed something to kick us in the butt. I don’t think the blame rests on one person’s shoulders. We all need to be doing everything we can to make our high school all it can be.”

Hall and others noted that Lake Region High isn’t unique. Many schools across the United States have similar problems, according to Susan Gendron, who was Maine’s education commissioner before stepping down last month to become a consultant in a national education reform effort.

Being one of many is little consolation to members of SAD 61, but it does fuel their hope that Lake Region High will be able to turn things around and become a model for other schools.

“It remains to be seen whether we can accomplish all that we intend to do,” said Wayne Warner, school board chairman. “There are many good things going on at the high school and we want to build on that. We may be setting the tone for other schools across Maine and beyond.”

Looking ahead, Lake Region High is on the cusp of other major changes, including a $14 million renovation project starting this summer. Some people predict that the high school won’t be on the list next year because students and teachers organized a push to promote studying for and performing well on this year’s SAT, which was administered May 1.

As outgoing principal, Roger Lowell said he’s been an educator long enough to know that simply improving SAT scores won’t be enough to bring significant change at the high school. The improvement plan continues ongoing efforts at the high school, he said, and now the district will have money to back them up.

While he looks forward to managing his family’s wood lot in Bridgton and other new ventures, he said he’s going to keep an eye on Lake Region High and hope for the best.

“I definitely still care about this school,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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